John Calvin in The Wall Street JournalPosted: August 6, 2009
The title of the article, Calvin’s Legacy: Dour Autocrat or Democracy’s Hero?
David Skeel writes,
‘Jean Cauvin, nous sommes ici!”—John Calvin, we are here—a preacher proclaimed at the “Calvin 500” festival that brought dozens of pastors and scholars to Geneva earlier this month. Geneva itself seemed less enthusiastic. The city’s own celebration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth on July 10, 1509, featured an outdoor play that concluded with the Calvin character lifting a shroud from statues of Calvin and three other Protestant reformers, then turning to the stone Calvin and berating him for his repressive rule. What “stood out,” according to one American pastor who emailed me, was “Geneva’s antipathy to Calvin—not ambivalence, antipathy.” Another concluded: “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.”
Thus it has always been for the complicated religious leader who fled from his native France in 1536; he had planned to spend only a night in Geneva, but his fellow reformer William Farel begged him to stay and help with his efforts there. Calvin’s early tenure in Geneva was shaky; the city council banished him in 1538, only allowing him to return in 1541. As he solidified his power, Calvin maintained the separation between the church and the city council, but the church’s ruling body, the Consistory, wielded formidable social influence through its discipline of wayward parishioners.
To his defenders, Calvin recovered essential, long-buried Christian principles, such as the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture, by holding the doctrines of the Catholic Church up to the light of biblical teaching. His insistence on the freedom of individual believers, and recognition that magistrates are sinful like everyone else, contributed to representative democracy and the separation of church and state. To detractors, he was a dour autocrat who was obsessed with sin, taught that many men and women were predestined to hell, and saddled Geneva with a welter of moral rules and prohibitions.
The speakers and hundreds of Calvin enthusiasts who flocked to Geneva for “Calvin 500” earlier this month were Reformed theology stalwarts, most hailing from the theologically conservative Presbyterian denominations that identify themselves with Calvin. The Geneva event was remarkably similar to the leading festivities of the last major Calvin anniversary, which were held in Savannah, Ga., a century ago. In 1909, renowned Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield worried about Americans’ discomfort with Calvin’s emphasis on predestination and human sinfulness, and defended Calvinism as “the casting of the soul wholly on the free grace of God alone, to whom alone belongs salvation.” In 2009, in Geneva, Covenant Seminary President Bryan Chapell preached on the comforts of these difficult doctrines. And legal scholar John Witte’s address on Calvin’s influence on Western law and politics, among others, also echoed the earlier celebration.